Research and symbolism on the doorstep

(Hells bells this turned into a long post. Sorry in advance!)

On our long walk the other weekend I came across a hawthorn in bloom, growing beside an oak with new leaves, over what appeared to be an old well. A raft of symbolism, right there on my doorstep, all tying into the novel I’ve just finished rewrites on – May Queen – and its sequel which I have been researching – Forest King.

I had to share the picture. Oak and hawthorn are representative of my two main characters, and the story is drawn from the folklore of the British Isles so much of which revolves around trees.

Chatting on twitter the other day, I mentioned process and that maybe I would write up a blogpost on it. So this is that blogpost. And the pretty picture… ah well, that’s part of the process too. All will become clear – or more confused. We shall see.

When using folklore for the basis of stories I’m always struck by two things:

How much is already in our subconscious minds waiting for a chance to get out


How much the stories interlink naturally, with almost no prodding at all from me.

Many years ago I read (probably for college) The White Goddess by Robert Graves. Or at least I think I read it. There were a lot of books read in a relatively short period of time. The reason I think I read it, rather than remember reading it, is that now, as I reread it I find myself going “Oh yes, I REMEMBER THIS!” about theories and stories within its text, rather than remembering the text itself. But one thing I am continually asking myself is Am I remembering it or am I delving into folk memory, because what Graves is exploring is the origins of our stories. And that has always fascinated me.

I grew up with stories. Myths, legends, novels, folktales… anything I could lay hands on really. The Famous Five, Grainne O’Malley, The Three Musketeers, King Arthur, Robin Hood, Finn and the Fianna… you name it. My family are always telling stories. Gather us in a room together and it just happens naturally.

There’s a well of knowlege in those stories, hidden beneath what we know. Our minds form links between tales, based on similarities in them but also on when we heard them and from whom. The links might not always be logical but they are there nonetheless and from those links, I think, new stories grow.

But yes, process. As I finished rewrites for May Queen and sent them off, I promised myself a week or so off from writing. That was… a week ago. Since then I’ve been reading and making notes. Becuase my mind very rarely takes a break from writing no matter what I tell it to do. There were a few days over the weekend where I didn’t have time, but there I was come Monday with thoughts spilling out all over the place. What I have so far may not end up being in the finished story. They might not even make it into the first draft, but this is the place where the seeds are sown, where the ideas get jumbled together and the process starts.

I have a notebook. It’s very pretty. I got it in the National Gallery in Dublin, but it comes from the V&A. The cover has a Chiniese painting of cherry blossom, flowers and birds. It felt like it fitted. It’s hardback, A5 and the paper is lovely to write on. I’ve mentioned before I’m a notebook fiend, haven’t I? Here’s the thing – writing for me is a physical act, especially in the early stages. I make my notes and rough draft longhand so I have nice paper and a lovely pen. Otherwise I get ratty. Do not mess with the notebook. Do not use the pen. I’m sure I’d manage if I didn’t have them, but its so much nicer if I do. There’s a sensuality about it. (Yeeees, now I sound like the nutter I am).

So this is step by step what happens (I’m flicking through the book as we go, so this may end up like the stream of consciousness ramblings I suspect they are).  Into the notebook goes the initial scene. It sprang into my mind some time ago. I jotted it down then elsewhere. Thankfully it stayed with me, so I rewrote it, incorporating some other ideas about the characters and the tone. It’s different from the first version. Darker and Jack, the main character, is a lot less certain of his position than he was before. (I also have the first version. Nothing is ever thrown away. Spending ages trying to cut down the word length of The Wolf’s Sister only to be asked on acceptance to expand it taught me that valuable lesson. Nothing is ever thrown away.)

Then I try to write an overview, a sketch of where the story is and where I see it going. I ask A LOT of questions. I write them down too. I’ve decided to set the story in the run up to Christmas at a university. I realise I’ll need to research a lot of folklore relating to Christmas, midwinter, Yule etc. I jot down notes on what’s happened in the meantime, how the characters came to be where they are, and on new characters. I sketch the primary new character. I give her a name. I change the name. I change it again. I research her name and change it yet again. Then give her a nickname too. Names are important. They need to be right.

Overview 1 gets about 1/3 of the way through the story until it veres off course. Back to research. I have 5 pages of notes on Christmas, Yule, Wassailing, 12th Night and apple trees. Yes, that’s right. Apple trees – there’s a LOT about Apple trees. Then on to Mummers and Wrenboys. It’s so much fun. It makes no sense whatsoever. Oh and Saturnalia. Saturnailia is awesome!

I write out 20 things that have to happen but it turns into an overview as well. I really shouldn’t do them in order but I invariably do. Thing is there’s more of a complete story arc now – dare I say it, a PLOT. It goes a bit haywire in the middle, I’m not entirely sure what my villains are up to, but, hey, at least there’s something resembling a plan of action for the main characters.I know what I want to happen. I just have to get them into certain situations.

Then I look at fairy tales to see what ones tie in to the folklore I’m using. Oh my. Quite a lot. And then I widen it to other stories, folktales and ballads.

Now we’re looking at The Goose Girl, the Princess & the pea, Jack & the beanstalk, Robin Hood, Snow White, Twelfth Night, Athena, Hua Mulan, Joan of Arc, Rose Red & the White Lily, the Witch Princess and the Twelve Huntsmen.

I start coming up with possible dialogue. I toy with with idea and background of Puck as a character in folklore. Other lines from songs and poems pop into my head. I look at the GMC of my MC. I run away in horror and write another scene from early in the story.

And then I’m back to apples. We look at Avalon, at Emain Ablach, at the Hesperides, at the Silver Apples of the Moon and the Golden Apples of the Sun. I get distracted by Yeats. I find out all about Oak apples and get squicked out by the thought of finding worm, flies and spiders inside them. Still getting shivers down the back at that but what a scene it would make. Apples turn up prominently in Greek, Celtic, Norse and Arthurian legends.

Shakespeare makes another dive in to my consciousness and I think I’ve found a way to tie Queen Mab to Bran the Blessed. As you do.

Then I’m off researching early English heroes and legends – Offa of Angel, Herne the Hunter, Woden and Hereward the Wake. And another idea starts to take form – that of old and forgotten gods, the ones who came before which were only held back as long as certain traditions kept the barriers in place. What happens if those barriers fall?

The time has come to start to draw all of this together now. I list my characters, where they stand, who are heroes, who are villains and who stands in between? I ask myself major questions about what drives them, what they are afraid of. Responsibility seems to be really important in this book, although we will see later on if that’s true.

And that is where I am. Research isn’t finished. I’m only a 1/4 of the way through Graves and don’t intend to stop. I haven’t written down half of what I’ve picked up in my beautiful notebook. I’ve only filled 43 pages!

What all this has given me is a starting point. I have an idea of a plot, but not really a plot itself. I have a number of scenes and situations I want to use in the story, but I’m not entirely sure where. I have my characters. Some are solid and definite, others are more fluid and I still have decisions to make on them. I still have TONNES of research to do. That’s a given. It’s always ongoing. I do love my research but there comes a time where you have to actually write the book.

The next stage will include a lot of mulling, a couple of false starts and sketching out of other scenes. Drawing things together before I actually start in earnest. I will take breaks and get frustrated and work on other things. But the story and all its diverse elements are still there in the back of my mind, ticking over. This Pre-writing stage bleeds into the writing stage and returns time and again. Becuase nothing is fixed, it lets the pantser* in me have free reign with the story. It allows the story to change if it needs to. I’m not locked into a plot from the very beginning. I’m a plantser – I both plot and pants. Neither has precedence and it depends on the story.

So that is essentially it. My marginally insane process. Once I know where I am going (roughly) I can get started. But rather than an ordinance survey map, it’s more like a map drawn in crayon on the back of a beermat. Using fairytales, songs and ancient heroes as markers. And apples. For pity’s sake don’t forget the apples.

I’ll… I’ll let you know how I get along.

Em… does anyone have a compass?

*One who writes by the seat of their pants – i.e. makes it up as they go along

6 thoughts on “Research and symbolism on the doorstep

  1. That doesn’t sound insane…so you may have to shuffle up on the bench as we wait for our white coats.

    I’m a planster too, with my indecipherable notes and my beermat. My research carries on as I write. Though I’m jealous of how well you know your characters pre-writing. Mine are still amorphous blobs with the right name attached as I begin 🙂

    And now I want to look up all the stuff you mentioned…because it and your new wip sound fascinating 🙂

  2. Yup. Not exactly the way you do, but the notebook and the pen and the pages and pages of notes. The research, the maps, the rules if that world.

    I hang the symbolism lightly in the back of my head. I have to trust that it’s going to come out where it needs to. I’ll go back, later after it’s all written and read specifically for it, but when it comes down to writing, I absorb, absorb, absorb, (notes, notes, notes) let it stew and then start writing, trusting that I just gave my subconscious a feast from which to pull out what it feels like using.

  3. What I wouldn’t give to have a peek into that magic notebook!

    I also like picking up a pen and jotting down scenes and notes. The odd thing is sometimes, I don’t ever look back to such notes, but having written them down somehow helps the process.

  4. True, Jeannie. Quite often I don’t look back on notes. But I’m always paranoid that if I don’t write it down and then forget, its gone forever!!!

  5. Notebookes make things more real and personal. Always glad to see other writers using them to full effect!

    Great post by the way! 🙂 I wonder if you had the history books with legends in them, too. We were thought about legends as if they were true and a lot of those myths still hold some sway in my head.

  6. I do the same thing. Lots and lots of long hand. Character and world building notes, and then onto scenes or partial scenes at least. It’s a pain in the neck to go back and type it up, but the stories just flow easier that way.

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